Earlier this week I spent half an hour trudging through my online supermarket order and thinking about the advice on eating a varied diet. As I dutifully included a multi-coloured assortment of fruit and vegetables, protein and so on, I wondered, not for the first time, why human food has to be so complicated and take up so much time. There’s the shopping, the planning, the cooking, the serving, clearing up the spills, cleaning the fridge—it seems a great deal of effort. After all, cats seem quite happy with cat food, cows eat grass, and reindeer warble flies survive perfectly well on reindeer tissue.
Indeed, not only do most animals have a narrow diet, but a varied one can be positively harmful. During the Second World War it was difficult to source the right food for zoo animals and the sea lions in Manchester’s Belle Vue Zoo were fed strips of beef soaked in cod liver oil. They were unable to digest this unaccustomed food and died of stomach ulcers. But the opposite applies to humans as too much of one thing is clearly not good. I recently discovered some rather nice apricot biscuits. The first was delicious. The second was pleasant, if a bit greedy. The third made me feel thoroughly sick and now I never want to see an apricot biscuit again.
And so, back to the subject of food shopping which can be so repetitive and tedious. I regularly get stuck in a rut with day-to-day catering and wish I could just order a hundredweight of hay to get my family through the week. That way there would be no decisions to be made. But I do enjoy cooking for special meals and celebrations and I suppose that if I had a family of elephants then I’d miss out on all of that.
If I missed out on all of that then I’d also have missed out on a recent food-related treat. I’ve known for some time that the food writer, Elizabeth David is credited with transforming British attitudes to eating after the Second World War, but I was curious to find out more. So when I wrote my list of sixty treats she got a mention. ‘Cook three recipes from each chapter of an Elizabeth David book’ seemed a good way to explore her influence and ideas.
Things change, though, and since making the list five years ago, I’ve given up eating meat. I decided to forgo the pleasures of her classic books ‘French Country Cooking’ and ‘Italian Food’ in case they instructed me to pluck a pigeon, jug a wild hare or boil, breadcrumb and grill a pig’s trotter. Instead I chose to focus my interest on ‘Elizabeth David on Vegetables’. This is a compilation of vegetable recipes and food writing taken from a number of her books. It includes chapters on soup, pasta, main courses, and small vegetable dishes, as well as the unexpected inclusion of chapters on bread and puddings.
Her first volume, A Book of Mediterranean Food, was published in 1950. She wrote of sun-drenched, honest, peasant dishes which must have seemed so vibrant to a country that was still under the grey thumb of post-war rationing. Wartime recipe books included instructions on crow boiled in suet and how to create a pie from sparrows, whilst marzipan had become a ‘delicacy’ concocted from mashed haricot beans and a splash of almond essence. It’s hard to imagine a week in which I don’t use olive oil, aubergines, avocado, courgette, garlic, yogurt or basil but when Elizabeth David first started writing, these ingredients were largely unavailable. It was partly thanks to her influence, that they appeared in the shops. She died in 1992 and one obituarist observed that she had done more to change British middle-class life, than any poet, dramatist or novelist of the time.
So, as the treat progressed I selected and cooked my way through twenty-four recipes, and with her impeccable reputation I expected to be roundly wowed. But I was surprised. There were only two that I thought outstanding. These were truly wonderful, though, and I’ve already returned to them again and again. One is her mushroom risotto which is absolutely perfect. I’ve struggled in the past to get enough flavour into a risotto but this manages it with a simple and cheap list of ingredients: olive oil, stock, mushrooms, onion, Italian rice and garlic. It works every time and is creamy, comforting and easy. The other big discovery from the book is her sweet pepper and watercress salad. Again, simple with just a shallot, half a bunch of watercress and a fleshy red pepper. It’s lightly dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and a pinch of sugar, but the revelation is that the shallot is sliced paper-thin and the red pepper is cut into matchstick strips. The end result is beautifully balanced and so much more elegant than my usual sling-it-all-in affair.
There was also a fresh tomato pasta sauce; a gratin made from grated courgettes; a Normandy apple tart sprinkled towards the end of its oven-time with buttery apple juices and a little sugar, and a cold dish of mushrooms cooked with coriander seeds. All were good and I’ll probably make them again. But I was disappointed with the other dishes. The orange ice cream was horrid and the green vegetable risotto was dull. Maybe some tastes change over time.
I’m not completely won over but I am glad to have made her acquaintance, and like so many of these treats, this one has changed me. I find myself opting more for straightforward good-quality ingredients and letting them stand alone, when I once would have reached unthinkingly for a stock cube or a splash of instant flavouring. My interest in cooking has been invigorated once more—and with that good news, my family is saved from hay, hay and hay for a little longer.